Saturday, May 9, 2015

Australia: The Numbat’s Last Refuge

One native rarity survives, precariously, outside the fence around Barna Mia Reserve. It is the Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus), a highly-specialized little termite-feeder that is one of Australia's few diurnal mammals. It has vanished, probably entirely, from eastern Australia, and even in the west Dryandra Woodlands may be the last refuge of a viable, though declining, population. Numbats are shy, rather secretive creatures, and we did not find one (though I have seen the species in captivity). I'll have to make do here with its image from the mural at Barna Mia, just over Eileen's right shoulder.  Still, knowing that these lovely animals survived here gave a special meaning to our exploration of the area, on the morning of September 14, 2013.

The Lions Village at Dryandra Woodlands is ideally suited for a morning nature walk - like the retreat in the Stirlings, it would surely repay a few days' stay.

This is wandoo country, named for its most prominent tree, the Wandoo (Eucalyptus wandoo).

An array of spring flowers lined the pathway through the wandoo woodland.

Wandoo (Eucalyptus wandoo)
Many of the flowers covering the ground were not growing, but fallen from the wandoo trees overhead.

White Candles (Stackhousia monogyna)White Candles (Stackhousia monogyna)
White Candles (Stackhousia monogyna)
Among the flowers actually growing in the woodland soil were a number I had seen farther south, including White, or Creamy, Candles (Stackhousia monogyna)...

Purple Tassels (Sowerbaea laxiflora)
....Purple Tassels (Sowerbaea laxiflora), still not fully open....

Variable Buttercup (Hibbertia cf commutata)
...and a native 'buttercup'. There are many species of Hibbertia (actually in the Dilleniaceae, not the Ranunculaceae to which 'true' buttercups belong). This one may be Variable Buttercup (Hibbertia commutata).

Sugar Orchid (Ericksonella saccharata)
Sugar Orchid (Ericksonella saccharata)
 New to me, and surprisingly common, were numbers of small, mostly white terrestrial orchids.

Sugar Orchid (Ericksonella saccharata)
Sugar Orchid (Ericksonella saccharata)
Sugar Orchid (Ericksonella saccharata)
These were, I learned later, Sugar Orchids (Ericksonella saccharata), a widespread southwestern species and the only member of its genus.

Sugar Orchid (Ericksonella saccharata)
These rather odd-looking plants are Sugar Orchids too; the flowers have been fertilized, and what remains are the ripening fruits.

The wildflower show continued in the shrub layer, with a diverse assemblage of flowering bushes. They included members of three plant families that typify the vegetation of the outback: Myrtaceae, the family of myrtles and eucalypts; Proteaceae, with its array of banksias, smokebushes and their relatives; and Mimosaceae, with its assortment of wattles. In this photograph you can see all three, growing together.

White Myrtle (Hypocalymma angustifolium) and Blue Smokebush (Conospermum amoenum)
A closer look finds two families growing together: White Myrtle (Hypocalymma angustifolium) intertwined with Blue Smokebush (Conospermum amoenum).

White Myrtle (Hypocalymma angustifolium)
White, or Pink-flowered, Myrtle (Hypocalymma angustifolium) is a distinctive and attractive plant, popular in Australian gardens.

Blue Smokebush (Conospermum amoenum)
Blue Smokebush (Conospermum amoenum)
Blue Smokebush (Conospermum amoenum) is more colourful than many of the other members of its genus, whose flowers tend to be whitish or grey.

Tiny-leaved Wattle (Acacia lasiocarpa)
Tiny-leaved Wattle (Acacia lasiocarpa), if that is indeed what this is, is widespread throughout the southwest.

Sandplain Poison (Gastrolobium microcarpum)
Sandplain Poison (Gastrolobium microcarpum)
Related to the wattles is an array of red, orange and yellow pea flowers. This appears to be Sandplain Poison (Gastrolobium microcarpum).  As I explained in my last post, Gastrolobium peas are laced with the active toxin in 1080, the poisonous chemical used to eradicate (or to try to eradicate) the alien foxes and feral cats that have wiped out so many of Australia's smaller mammals. Its presence here at Dryandra is a reminder that native mammals have been around 1080-like poisons for millennia, and have a natural immunity to the toxin that kills their introduced enemies.

Flowers (and the unfortunately-invisible numbats) were not the only things to keep an eye out for.

Western Grey Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus)
Western Grey Kangaroos (Macropus fuliginosus) were the only visible marsupials in the area; this one has a joey in her pouch.

 Birds, of course, were much easier to come across.  This trail marker celebrates that fact with an image of one of the most charming.

Blue-breasted Fairy-wren (Malurus pulcherrimus)
Fairy-wrens are irresistible creatures, and I was diverted for some time by a pair of Blue-breasted Fairy-Wrens (Malurus pulcherrimus) defending a row of shrubbery (full disclosure: I did use a tape, with discretion I hope, to draw them into view.  They remained interested in [or disturbed by] me for some time afterwards).  

Blue-breasted Fairy-wren (Malurus pulcherrimus)
Though fairy-wrens were once thought to be polygamous, these birds are surely a mated pair.  Fairy-wrens often live in family groups with male and female helpers that assist in raising young and defending territory, but in this species simple pairs, living on their own, are more common. 

Blue-breasted Fairy-wren (Malurus pulcherrimus)
Monogamy, however, does not necessarily mean  fidelity;  fairy-wrens  are famous for leaving their territory so frequently to copulate with their neighbors that the majority of their offspring are usually not the progeny of the mated pair.

Blue-breasted Fairy-wren (Malurus pulcherrimus)
This is the female, distinguished from young and eclipse-plumage males by her reddish bill and lores. Dryandra is reputedly the easiest place to see this species, though it ranges throughout the drier parts of the southwest (the area referred to as the wheatbelt) and, with a few other western endemics, reaches the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia, where I first met with one in 1974.  

Blue-breasted Fairy-wren (Malurus pulcherrimus)
The birds at Dryandra were the subjects of a long-term study in the 1990s by Ian Rowley, the leading expert on the fairy-wren family (Rowley, ICR and EM Russell (2002). "A population study of the Blue-breasted Fairy-wren Malurus pulcherrimus at Dryandra, Western Australia". Emu 102(2): 127 - 135).  The study has taught us much of what we know about this species.

Rowley found that adults lived in groups of two to four birds, each defending a territory averaging about 2.5 hectares.   Over two thirds of the groups studied consisted only of a simple pair.  This contrasts with the Blue-breasted's close cousin Red-winged Fairy-Wren (Malurus elegans), which lives in the humid zone further to the southwest.  Red-wings, in a similar study, were found to live in groups of up to nine birds on territories of only about hectare, with fewer than 17% of the birds living in simple pairs.  We don't know exactly why this difference exists.

Blue-breasted Fairy-wren (Malurus pulcherrimus)
The band on the leg of this mail suggests that the Blue-breasted Fairy-Wrens of Dryandra are still being studied, or at least monitored.

Blue-breasted Fairy-wren (Malurus pulcherrimus)
 All this science, fascinating as it is, can of course be considered secondary to the sheer pleasure of encountering a bird as beautiful and engaging as this little male.  Fairy-Wrens rank among the chief reasons that I love Australia.

Short-billed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus latirostris)
Other birds provided their own distractions from the Dryandra wildflower show. Here is a Short-billed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus latirostris), partially concealed in the branches of a wandoo.

Rufous Treecreeper (Climacteris rufus)
This was my only look at a bird that is, in its way, evendearer to my heart than  the fairy-wrens. Australian treecreepers make up the family Climacteridae, one of the most ancient of living  songbird families, and quite unrelated to the treecreepers of the Northern Hemisphere.  They were the subject of my doctoral thesis, and my excuse for spending two years in Australia in the early 1970s. The Rufous Treecreeper (Climacteris rufus), like the Blue-breasted Fairy-Wren, is a southwestern endemic with an outlier population in the Eyre  Peninsula of South Australia, where I met it in 1974. I had hoped to see it at closer terms in Western Australia itself, but apparently it is a harder bird to come to grips with there than I had imagined. This distant photograph was the best I could do.

Between the birds and the flowers, I had a lovely morning walk.... 

...even if I had to leave many of the flowers unidentified.  Can anyone help me with these?

At the end of the walk, I was surprised to find a memorial to a man I once met. Vincent Serventy (1916-2007), with his older brother Dominic (or Dom) (1904-1988), was a dean of Western Australian ornithology.  He was also  a leader in the fight for the conservation of wildlife in his state and his country, and this series of billboards was a testimony to his life's work.  He deserves much of the credit for the fact that Dryandra Woodlands still exists.  As the Sydney Morning Herald reported after his death in 2007, "When the West Australian Liberal Government gave Alwest a lease to mine the Dryandra Forest, Serventy wrote to Rupert Murdoch, who headed Alwest: "If you destroy Dryandra, it will be an act of sacrilege."  Murdoch relinquished the lease."

Our walks completed, Eileen and I loaded the car, and began our drive along the dirt road leading out of the reserve.

Petrophile cf brevifolia with Fine-leaved Smokebush (Conospermum filifolium)
On the edge of the woodland we made a final stop along a stretch of road lined with splendid flowering shrubs.  The most spectacular and obvious were all members of the protea family (Proteaceae), including the plant that gives the Woodland its name.

Fine-leaved Smokebush (Conospermum filifolium)
Fine-leaved Smokebush (Conospermum filifolium), one of 53 species in a genus confined to Australia, provided a hazy lavender-blue background for the flowers of some of its more spectacular cousins.

Pink Coneflower (Isopogon crithmifolius)Pink Coneflower (Isopogon crithmifolius)
Pink Coneflower (Isopogon crithmifolius)
Coneflowers (Isopogon) and Petrophiles (Petrophile) belong to two closely-related, showy Australian genera with most of their species confined to the west.  Twenty-five of the thirty-seven species of coneflower are found in the southwest.  Pink Coneflower (Isopogon crithmifolius) is, effectively, a wheatbelt endemic though it does occur in some surrounding areas.

Silky Petrophile (Petrophile cf brevifolia)
Silky Petrophile (Petrophile cf brevifolia)
The southwest is home to forty-seven of the fifty-three petrophiles.  The name means 'rock-loving', but that certainly isn't descriptive of the species at Dryandra - where, in any case, rocks are hard to come by.  The genus is extremely variable; this one is probably Silky Petrophile (Petrophile brevifolia).

Tangled Petrophile (Petrophile divaricata)
Tangled Petrophile (Petrophile divaricata)
Tangled Petrophile (Petrophile divaricata) gets both is English and scientific names from its leaves, which split into two, or divaricate, again and again along their length. ending up with a tangled mass of foliage.

Golden Dryandra (Banksia nobilis)
Golden Dryandra (Banksia nobilis)
Golden Dryandra (Banksia nobilis)
Finally, here is the Golden Dryandra (Banksia nobilis), one of the most splendid of its kind and the ideal flower, both in name and beauty, to see us off as we left Dryandra Woodlands for the drive back to Perth.

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